Friday, 31 July 2015

The Maximally Deployable Modular City

The high density modular city.
A sustainable alternative to the unconstrained growth of megacities?

Tay Kheng Soon is a practising architect and academic, who has spent many years thinking about cities and urbanism. He was also a friend of my father, and someone I saw a lot of when I lived in Singapore. Here, he proposes a possible solution to the problems resulting from the unconstrained growth of megacities due to the rural poor migrating to them and slums developing at their fringes.

The solution he proposes is the construction of modular cities: high density, high tech, urban environments, occupying 1 square kilometre, housing 100,000 people.

By having the services and motorised vehicles at ground level and constructing the city above the roads, an entirely car-free urban environment is created, where there are only pedestrians and bicycles on the streets.

By banishing vehicles, the city can be built on the scale of historical ones prior to the motor car era, with streets and squares on a human scale.

This, it is suggested, offers a way of reversing the growth of megacities that threatens to engulf the countryside, while offering the inhabitants of the new modular cities a good quality of life, and allowing the regeneration of degraded agricultural land.

 Rural populations migrate to slums at the edges of megacities

The construction of modular cities allows this trend to be reversed

Key to the modular city is a degree of autonomy and self sufficiency in energy, food, water and waste recycling through the use of new technology, currently under development, but possibly close to realisation.

I enjoyed watching the video, and I think there are some interesting and good ideas, but I also have some reservations about the concept.

I like the idea of high density urban living on a human scale. It's what makes many mediaeval and renaissance cities so attractive. By banishing cars, and freeing up the space they require, this becomes  possible once again in the modern world

I like the idea of a city where there is complete separation of motorised traffic from pedestrianised streets, hence my fondness for Venice, where the streets are for pedestrians, and the canals for boats. The idea of putting all the motorised traffic below the city is intriguing, and it might just work.

I'm less keen on the zoning scheme in which the middle classes live at the edge, and the poor people in the centre. In my experience, places where the rich and the less well-off live amongst each other have a greater vitality and interest.

The technologies by which it is proposed that these modular cities can be self sustaining are not yet in production, although perhaps they might be around the corner. More problematic are the political structures by which it is proposed these modular cities might be established and sustained, especially since many of the megacities are in regions that are totalitarian and corrupt.

Still, it did give me some food for thought, and I'd be interested to know what you think.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Saving Norton Folgate

The Mayor of London has declared East London to be an "opportunity area". 
There's a building boom, with skyscrapers springing up all over the place. 
The urban fabric is changing.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate is a quarter in London adjacent to the City of London, Spitalfields and Shoreditch. It is a conservation area whose architectural character derives mainly from its Georgian houses and Victorian warehouses. British Land planned to redevelop the site, which would have meant demolishing many of the buildings and replacing them with large constructions, totally out of scale with the existing fabric

Last Sunday, we joined other supporters of the Save Norton Folgate campaign and formed a human chain around the quarter in a final public demonstration. 

It was a bright, sunny day, perfect for that sort of event. Photographs and videos were taken, and everyone had a nice time. The following Tuesday,Tower Hamlets rejected the redevelopment proposal. I was very pleased with the outcome.

This part of London has seen successive waves immigration. Protestant Huguenot refugees from France, fleeing religious persecution, arrived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Then came Jews from central Europe in the early 20th century. In the 1970s, these migrants were replaced by Bangladeshis. The former Huguenot Church in Brick Lane became the synagogue, and is now the Brick Lane Mosque. Today, there is a large Bengali community, and the area around Brick Lane is also known as BanglaTown.

Over the weekend and the next few days, I reflected a little on architectural conservation. I like old buildings and historic cities, but I admire good architecture. Unfortunately, though, I sometimes get the feeling that many in the conservation lobby are opposed to any kind of modern architecture, and that's regrettable. In some conservation areas there can be a case for replicating past styles to fit in with the surroundings, but this is the easy option. It's more challenging (and I think preferable) to build something modern which fits in, but adds something fresh.

There was another aspect which gave me pause for thought. The proposed redevelopment was presented as one which would adversely affect the local community. However, the members of that community were not very much in evidence at the demonstration. By this, I don't mean the inhabitants of the Georgian townhouses in Norton Folgate and Spitalfields, who were very much in evidence, but the wider community, in fact the majority of the people from the area, the less well off and the Bangladeshis. The event I attended was an overwhelmingly white, middle-class affair. This is all too often the case with organisations concerned with preservation and conservation. It's a pity because this is every Londoner's heritage, and every Londoner should have a say in the future character of their neighbourhood.

I'm delighted that the Save Norton Folgate campaign was a success, but it would be marvellous if in future (because, sadly, these areas are always under threat) there could be more involvement from a wider cross section of the local population. In my personal experience, it's not difficult to connect across illusory barriers such as class, religion and ethnicity. What do you think?

Friday, 17 July 2015

Chelmsford's excellent Summer Beer and Cider Festival

I'm rather fond of beer, and beer festivals are fun and educational.

This year was the 40th anniversary of the Chelmsford Summer Beer and Cider Festival (7 - 11 July 2015), organised by our local branch of CAMRA. There are beer festivals on all the time, but this is my local one, and I've found it very enjoyable whenever I've attended. More so than many others I've been to elsewhere.

The festival is held every year in July in Admiral's Park, one of several contiguous parks extending from the centre of Chelmsford out to the suburbs. It's within walking distance from my home, but it's also an easy walk from the railway and bus station if you're coming from farther away. The summer beer festival takes place in a large area fenced in for the occasion, with a marquee along one edge. Beer and cider is dispensed in the marquee, cooked food from stalls outside at the other end of the field. There are a few tables and chairs, or you can sit on the grass. Toilet facilities are exceptionally good for this sort of event, with proper flushing loos, sinks with running water and soap, and even baby changing facilities.

These are the things I particularly like about my local beer fest.

  1. It's in a very pleasant setting, in a very nice park. This year the weather was bright and sunny, but there's lots of space in the marquee if it rains.
  2. There's a wide range of beer and cider, at moderate prices, varying according to alcoholic strength, starting at £1 for a third of a pint of low strength beer. Everything is vetted by the committee, and the quality is excellent.  
  3. It's a very relaxed and laid back atmosphere. The festival is run by volunteers, and the people behind the counter are friendly and helpful. Soft drinks are available for free, which encourages sensible and moderate consumption. It's a family-friendly affair, especially on the final Saturday when there are fairground rides, face painting stands, and so on. 
  4. A reasonable selection of straightforward but good food from the food stands.
  5. Good music at one end of the marquee, so you can choose to be as near or far from it as you like (not always possible in some festivals).
I attended on several different days this year., which is worth doing if you can because the way it works is that not all the casks will be available on every day, and if something is very popular and sells out, then it's gone. I really can't drink that much, so I'm not in a position to give a comprehensive review. Everything I sampled was excellent, but these are some of my more interesting discoveries:
  1. #100 (ABV 8.9%) from Round Tower. This was an lovely, rich, dark full flavoured Imperial Stout, not at all cloying, and without that alcohol hit that you sometimes find in stronger beers. When brewer Simon Tippler asked the public on Facebook some time ago for suggestions as to what we would like them to make, I suggested an Imperial Stout, but they did not have the capacity at the time. They've expanded since then I'm glad they've made this superb example. It was a small batch that sold out quickly, but I hope there will be more in future.
  2. Summer Braggot (8.5%) from Wibblers, another Essex brewery. Braggot is an ancient style of ale mixed with mead. The brewer spent nine months fermenting honey to make mead, which was then blended with beer. Mead, I learnt, is clear and dry. The sweet versions sold at market stalls often have honey added to them, as well as caramel for colour. In the days when braggot was originally made, hops had not yet been introduced to England. The beer used in this Wibblers version was hopped, but lightly. This braggot was a small batch brewed for the festival only. Delicious and educational.
  3. Essex Pasties from The Cheese and Pie Man. Peppery, with just the right ratio of beef, potato and pastry. This year I decided that I'd concentrate on sampling bitters, as I'd recently been drinking more of other styles like IPAs, and had recently been on a trip to Belgium where I'd had quite a lot of Belgian beer, of course. These pasties are excellent with bitter, and the Cheese and Pie Man is a regular at the festivals.
  4. Doughnuts go very well with stout. Another excellent pairing to remember for future occasions. The doughnuts at the festival (from Cambridge Donuts) were excellent.
I've always had a good time at the Chelmsford beer fest. It's an excellent opportunity to try a range of exceptionally good beer at moderate prices. Its a relaxed, chilled-out event enjoyed by all manner of people of all ages, from pensioners, to students, to young families, and the crowd is socially and ethnically diverse. If you think that the traditional beer scene is not for you, the beer and atmosphere at this festival will change your mind. Likewise if you're put off by the hipster craft beer scene.

Between now and next summer, there's also the winter festival (17 - 20 February 2016), held at the King Edward VI Grammar School (KEGS), which you should try to attend. More details here.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The Cafetière Exercise Plan for the exercise-averse

I have no interest in sport, and I'm not that keen on exercise. I've managed to be reasonably fit at various times (by my not very exacting standards), but with long periods in between when I've not been exactly in peak condition. Over the years, I've tried various things, all of which have been reasonably effective, as long as they were kept up, but I guess there's the rub.

I've used gyms before, but there were times when  I'd go to the gym after a long day at work, have a sit down and a coffee, get sidetracked to the steam bath and sauna, and then lose the will and go home. What with driving there and back, it was all rather time consuming even when I did get to do some exercise.

For a while I did my exercise at home, using a video programme called Fit Yummy Mummy which my wife had obtained. It was high intensity stuff, with short sessions lasting about 20 mins. It's very good, and I'd recommend to anyone, irrespective of gender. No driving to and from the gym, and you can slump into the sofa straight afterwards and watch the telly.

Something like bad cold is all it takes for me to break the exercise habit. I dropped out after one such spell, followed by a long period of no exercise, declining fitness, and shrinking trousers. I probably ought to get back to Fit Yummy Mummy in a while, but for now, I have I developed a system which works for me that does not require any will power or moral fibre to maintain.

The Cafetière Exercise Plan:

Upper body workout
  1. Wake up in the morning and eventually get out of bed.
  2. Make a pot of coffee using a cafetière. Pour in hot water (93C, if you have a suitable kettle, off the boil otherwise). Leave to steep.
  3. Do as many press-ups as possible.
  4. Depress plunger of cafetière. Drink coffee. Have breakfast, shower etc.
Lower body workout
  1. Walk to work (about 5 km /3 miles for me: takes about 45 mins). Most effective if left almost a bit too late so you have to walk briskly. This is the norm if you are an arch-procrastinator.
  2. Walk home in the evening.

I'd probably get fitter faster if I did something more intensive, but the point is that prior to this I was doing nothing. It might not be the most effective regime, but it seems to be sustainable so far, can often be modifed and maintained on holiday, and it does seem to work. If I'm feeling energetic, I might do chin-ups as well (I have one of those foldable bars that hooks over the door frame). I could cycle as an alternative, but my bike needs fixing and I haven't got round to it.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Liverpool: wonderful architecture, stunning city

I had to visit Liverpool on Monday to look at some radiology systems, and a bit of online research suggested that it would be a good idea to visit the city as well, so we decided to go up on Saturday morning and spend the weekend there.

Liverpool has a marvellous architectural heritage, with outstanding buildings dating from the Georgian period and onwards. Despite exceptionally heavy bombing during the Second World War, it has more listed buildings than any city after London and Bristol, more Georgian houses than Bath, and more public sculpture than anywhere in the UK, after the City of Westminster. Six areas in the docklands and historic city have UNESCO World Heritage Site status, as an example of a Maritime Mercantile City.

I was struck by the not just by quality of the architecture I saw around me, but also in particular by the visual coherence of the city centre. In fact, I think Liverpool might be architecturally the most attractive city I've seen in England. Some of this must be due to the way the city was laid out, but I'm sure that it's also due to the constraints placed on new developments in order to maintain its World Heritage status: limitations on the heights of of new buildings, and so on. However, it's worrying that because of proposed new developments in the northern docklands,  Liverpool's World Heritage status is currently under threat.

During this short stay, I couldn't see as much of the as I would have liked, partly because I spent quite a lot of time in some of the excellent museums (the Museum of Liverpool, the Bluecoat, and the Maritime Museum, and there were others I would have liked to have visited too), but I've decided that I must return for a longer trip.

Here are some pictures I took with my iPhone.

Pier Head, the iconic Liverpool waterfront with its three great Edwardian buildings

From Right to left:
Royal Liver Building,  by Walter Aubrey Thomas (1908-11)
Cunard Building, by Willink and Thicknesse, with Arthur J Davis (1914-16)
Former Mersey Docks and Harbour Board headquarters, by Briggs and Wolstenholme, with Hobbs and Thornely (1903-7)

In front of them the Mersey Ferry Terminal, by Hamilton architects (completed 2009). I thought it was OK, but in 2009 in won the "Carbuncle Cup", awarded by Building Design magazine for the worst new building of the year.

Royal Liver Building, by Walter Aubrey Thomas (1908-11)

Cunard Building, by Willink and Thicknesse, with Arthur J. Davis (1914-16)

I was also much taken by the massive art deco George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station. The tower houses the ventilation shaft for the Queensway Tunnel under the Mersey. The control station and offices are housed in the base that surrounds it.

George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station, Pier Head, by Herbert J. Rowse (1931-4)



Relief sculpture on George Dock Ventilation and Control Station. 
Speed - The Modern Mercury, by Edmund C. Thompson assisted by George T. Capstick

Detail from George Dock Ventilation and Control Station

A selection of other buildings I liked:

White Star Line offices, James Street, by Norman Shaw (1895-8)
(The company that owned the Titanic)

Former Leyland and Bullin's Bank, corner of Castle and Brunswick Street, 
by Grayson & Ould (1895, with extension in 1900)

Municipal Buildings, Dale Street, by John Wightman and E.R. Robinson (1862-8)

Former Great George Street Congregational Church, by Joseph Franklin (1840-1), 
Chinese Arch, designed and made in China by Shanghai Linyi Garden Building Co. Ltd 
(completed 2000)

Scandinavian Seamens' Church: 
Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, Park Lane, by W.D. Caröe (1883-4)

Chancery House, Paradise Street, by James Strong of Walker and Strong (1899). 

Built as the Gordon Smith Institute for Seamen with library, reading room and assembly hall for sailors ashore. I'm not sure what it's intended use is right now, but I'm rather pleased that the scheme illustrated below has not been executed yet, and I rather hope it doesn't come to fruition. I dread to think what they would have done if the UNESCO rules had not been in place.

Church House, Hanover Street and Paradise Street, by George Enoch Grayson (opened 1885). Originally and institute of the Mersey Mission to Seamen with chapel and meeting rooms, and a temperance pub. Now home to a restaurant.

Former Bank of England, Castle Street, by C.R. Cockerell (1846-8)

Town Hall, by John Wood (1749-54); 
dome (completed 1802) and portico (completed 1811) by James Wyatt

Chapel Street: Hargreaves Buildings by J.A. Picton (1859), 
and the tower of Our Lady and St Thomas by Thomas Harrison (1811-15)

The waterfront. In the foreground, a Superlambanana, one of the modern symbols of Liverpool. On the water, the Dazzle Ferry, a Mersey Ferry painted in a dazzle pattern designed by Peter Blake.

View from the apartment we rented, with our favourite seagull on the balcony

These are the two guidebooks I bought during the trip:

I liked them both, but please note that the Pevsner guide was published in 2004. The Wallpaper guide is also available as an iPhone and iPad app.